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The Daily Tar Heel

2005: Won and done

Fans celebrate Roy Williams' first championship win on Franklin Street. DTH/file
Fans celebrate Roy Williams' first championship win on Franklin Street. DTH/file

ST. LOUIS — They started their careers by getting cut down.

Three cocky college freshmen with dreams of stardom and championship banners were humbled, humiliated. 

That’s what a 20-loss season will do, especially at a program where 20-win seasons are viewed as a birthright.

But seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel and Melvin Scott ended their North Carolina careers holding on to a piece of the Edward Jones Dome nets they cut down, a trophy from their dramatic 75-70 win against Illinois in the national championship game — a game that elevated a program from embarrassment to the pinnacle of college basketball in just three years.

“We finally did it,” said Williams as he wore one of the nets around his neck. “I told people I didn’t want a net until we won a national championship, and if we didn’t win it I just wasn’t going to get a net. But I had faith in my team that we would get here and we would win.”

The title was the first in the 17-year coaching career of Roy Williams and North Carolina’s fourth national championship in its 16th trip to the Final Four.

“It’s very gratifying to see Coach smile and to know that people aren’t going to be able to criticize him anymore because he’s finally got that one championship ring,” said Sean May, who was named the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring 26 points and grabbing 10 rebounds Monday. “It doesn’t define anybody’s career, but it will take a lot of pressure off him.”

The first matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in 30 years supplied a thrilling conclusion to a fantastic basketball season.

The game started with the two teams exchanging sizable runs. After Illinois (37-2) scored on its first possession, North Carolina (33-4) scored nine straight points. The Illini responded with a 10-0 run, but UNC had the final counter of the half, rattling off a 13-2 run in the last five minutes to give the Tar Heels a seemingly comfortable 40-27 lead.

Illinois shot just 27 percent before the break — including 5-of-19 on 3s — but stayed within striking distance by grabbing 13 offensive boards.

The Illini stormed out of intermission gunning from deep, and this time the shots started going down. Thanks to the hot shooting of Deron Williams and Luther Head — who were combined two for 15 in the first half — Illinois all but erased a 14-point UNC lead with a 15-3 run.

May held the Illini at bay, responding with 10 points and an assist on a Jawad Williams trey as UNC opened up a 65-55 lead.

“From the beginning, we knew it was tough for them to stop Sean,” Manuel said of May, who scored 18 second-half points. “Their big guys were getting in foul trouble, so it would be dumb not to go into Sean.”

But once again the Illini, who battled back from 15 points down with 4 minutes remaining in their regional final victory against Arizona, responded by scoring the next 10 points to level the score.

The end of the run looked to be the breaking point for UNC’s title dreams. Raymond Felton, who had 17 points and seven assists to make the all-tournament team, picked up his fourth foul with 5:34 left, and when Dee Brown knocked down two tying free throws, the predominantly orange-clad crowd erupted.

“We didn’t panic,” Jawad Williams said. “We knew we’d been in tough situations on and off the court before, so we just went out there and made plays.”

On the ensuing possession, Felton silenced the crowd with a spot-up 3 from the left wing. Still, Illinois wouldn’t fade and retied the score at 70 on a 3-pointer by Head, who along with Deron Williams was named to the all-tournament team.

But that would be the last shot Illinois would hit, as the 3s the Illini relied on so heavily to make the comeback stopped falling again. Illinois misfired on 28 of 40 3-point attempts, including its final five.

“We fought back and tied it up, but they made the plays and we didn’t,” Deron Williams said. “They made the plays down the stretch, and we didn’t.”

Two possessions after Head tied the game, Rashad McCants, who scored all 14 of his points in the first half, drove baseline and missed a reverse layup — but freshman Marvin Williams swooped in for the tip that pushed UNC to the victory.

“I just play as hard as I can,” Williams said. “Good things happen when you play hard — Coach always tells us that — so I give it everything I have.”

Felton, who made a crucial steal with 30 seconds left and UNC clinging to a 72-70 lead, added three free throws to clinch the national championship for the Tar Heels.

As the final buzzer sounded, May ran to embrace Roy Williams as the rest of his teammates piled on each other at center court.

Several minutes later, Scott was eagerly waiting for his chance to take the first snip at the net, and with it, the realization that North Carolina had completed the journey from 8-20 to No. 1.

“I could not wait. I knew I was going to be the first one because number one is on my jersey, number one in the country and all that. It’s a great feeling, man, just to cut these nets down,” Scott said with the twine wrapped around his neck.

“It’s finally over. We finally did it. My dream has finally come true.”

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